Voters and Nonvoters
Russell D. Renka
PS103 - March 2, 2009
º Voter Turnout
º The Cost of Voting
º Works Cited
This is all about voters and nonvoters, two groups of comparable size in contemporary America. Voting is the only expressly political act that an actual majority of the nation's adult citizens will undertake (if it's a presidential election). But alongside the 122,000,000 who did vote in 2004, an estimated 90,000,000 others did not. Same for 2008, where turnout rose to 131,000,000 while about 95,000,000 were elsewhere. Why do so many choose not to vote in a democracy that professes to hold this right dear?
Voter Turnout Top; Next Down
All texts affirm the common fact that American presidential and congressional election voting turnout declined in the period from 1960 through 2000. In 1996 and 2000 turnout T was about 50% of adults Americans aged 18-up (with 18 being the universal minimum age for voting); so nonvoters N were about equal to voters V in national number. You should first understand how turnout itself is calculated. Assume there are three entities V (voters), R (persons registered to vote, whether they did so or not), and A (American residents aged 18 up at time of a given election). Typically turnout T is the simple ratio V/A. It measures what proportion of A actually registered and then voted (with registration a precondition for voting). I've heard statements over the years from the local media citing local county registrars that T is much higher here than in the country as a whole. That's false. In fact they're measuring V/R, or proportion of registered persons who actually voted. Typically that figure in the 1990s nationally was about 70%, not 50%; so sure, a ratio of 50/70 is impressively better than 50/100. But it's all illusion from failure to know some elementary things. Local T isn't really better than elsewhere.
Michael MacDonald and colleagues present improved analyses of true voter turnout figures (Voter Turnout). Calculating this stuff is a substantial cottage industry for political scientists. It's not easy to do. We have an historically decentralized system of voter registration based on 3142 county/parish registrars who keep more-or-less accurate current lists of registered persons who are eligible to vote there.1 If you care to be added to that list, it's your right, but they typically don't look for you. You go to them; and I have links above this article's title for doing so locally. Anyway, by Tuesday after the first Monday in November for the general election, the select arrive at the designated neighborhood election site. They go in and pull out their voting cards with signatures on hand to compare to the alphabetized list of registered persons with addresses in that particular ward or precinct. The computer or the volunteer election worker checks you off, you pick up a ballot, go behind the curtain, vote in 5 minutes time, and on the way out, you can pick up an "I voted" sticker.
But don't go next door to another precinct in hopes of voting twice! They won't have you on the list, and you cannot "vote early and often" in corrupt 19th century fashion. Our county-based 20th century registration was instituted to promote honest voting; we leave stacking the ballot box to American Idol with its alleged 63 million votes cast in 2006 and 74 million in 2007.
Here's what MacDonald shows. The Voter Turnout graphic has an increasing discrepancy as we approach today between VEP (voter-eligible population) and VAP (voting-age population, equivalent to my A above). That's because we now have an estimated 12,000,000 resident illegal aliens plus some large number of resident legal aliens. A class of adult resident non-eligible persons of this magnitude is new; so we've relied in the past on using VAP to figure out voting turnout T where T=V/A. But now we see that it's far better to use VEP in the denominator. I'll now add a new term C for voting-age non-felon citizens and use that in the denominator; a revised T=V/C.
This raises voter turnout T above our T from the old data. We've got a better picture of what T truly is. But we still have many millions of nonvoters, as MacDonald shows. We still lag near the tail end of modern democracies for our low turnout in the most important national election (Patterson 2008, 191-194). The driving force favoring high American T is a presidential contest. Presidents are chosen once every four years on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November of leap years or their equivalent intervals; and the Congress is chosen the same way but every two years instead of four. So T is worse in midterm elections like 2002 and 2006, about 70 percent as high as T in presidential years (MacDonald, Midterm 2006 Voter Turnout compared to 2004). And in local elections such as city councils and school boards, it's often below 20 percent eligible who actually cast ballots.
Among the eligible citizenry, T is pretty variable by group and category. Low American T is strongly economic class-based, concentrating heavily on low education and low income citizens, unlike European democracies (Patterson 2008, Figure 7-3, p. 200). Low T is also typical among the youngest citizens, those aged 18 to 24. So: why is American T low? And why so low among the low-educated and the poor? Why so among the youthful?
The Cost of Voting Top; Next Down
Text Ch. 7 says millions of persons do not vote because citizens conclude that it costs more than it is worth. Yet I am frequently told that voting is a simple act requiring only that someone be eligible (citizen non-felon of at least 18 years age), be registered (in the county where you live, by the county registrar), know where her precinct or ward election site is, and go there between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on that Tuesday, for State of Missouri voters-to-be. How can someone object to doing something so easy?
My reply is that voting is not cheap or easy at all. Understand first that voting is not a purely private act even though a citizen is personally responsible for getting registered and finding the poll site and casting a vote. It is a complex social act, part of an elementary American civic ritual taught to us from childhood as an essential part of democracy. Citizens know they are unlikely to ever make the singular difference in the election's outcome, yet they participate rather like a figurative contributor in a vast tug-of-war between comparably sized teams pulling for different outcomes. We have to be taught to think like this. Voting is a collective act in pursuit of a collective good. There is always the individual's option to free ride, leaving the task to others while counting on them to keep a democracy operating.
Here's why voting isn't cheap: it's all about getting information and using it. Consider taking examinations in online Southeast classes. One gets on the computer, goes to the UTest site, takes the test in an hour's time, and awaits results posted on Grade A. How easy and simple that is. But of course, that's not the half of it. The real problem is figuring out how to perform decently or well. That demands preparation time via acquisition of information. Consider a colleague of mine who regularly performs at campus orchestral concerts. His performance time is a mere 2 hours or so plus the usual transit of self and cello to Academic Hall. Easy, you say. But perhaps you'd care to inquire how much advance practice, thought, and devotion he must commit before taking the stage or pit! It's scary to tally that up.
And that is my point: the true cost of voting is figuring out what to do in the booth. And in the U.S., it's also figuring out how to register. Now that's simple, you may say. You go to the county registrar during working hours; or you get solicited on campus to register on the spot; or you get invited to do so at the local automobile and driver's license site. Sure, sure; but in Missouri and most other states that's normally done at least a month before the November election itself! How many among you truly pay mind to a task a month beforehand? If "not many," perhaps you sympathize with citizens who see an election is imminent and then discover that they're unregistered in that city or town or county. Sorry, friend; you are not among the select.
Now you may see why registered R's number only about 70 percent of adult A's; they were tripped up by our county tripwires against overly enthusiastic would-be repeat voters. No American Idol text messengers need apply their repeat voting to real political elections.
And you may also see why political parties have a long-standing and central part in American public life. They drastically reduce the individual's informational cost for voting. Parties help beleaguered citizens figure out how to vote in simplified fashion. Political ideology does the same thing in a basic sense; if you're a liberal and the Democratic Party is the more liberal of the two big parties, then its candidate will probably harvest your vote. If you're a conservative, the Republicans will do so. But as Chapter 6 said clearly, most Americans and voters lack a clearly defined political ideology such as this; and it takes a lot of interest and information to truly acquire one. It also takes plenty of time and effort to truly recognize how major candidates stand on the issues. In 2008, is Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama truly a liberal? Not in all respects. Is Republican John McCain truly a conservative? Not uniformly so. Thus the party label is a convenient and cheap substitute for lack of such detailed knowledge about oneself and the candidate for whom one can vote.2
If you believe party's not important, try this exercise in your spare time. Await a local nonpartisan election for city council or school board; then get a newspaper or attend candidate debates to see who stands for what; peruse their credentials (heavily weighted with who belongs to the right civic organizations); and make your decision in confidence that you know what you're doing. It costs a lot, and it feels perilous! This is the real cost of voting! It explains why so few stockholders vote on Boards of Directors or on legalese and financial mumbo governing the direction of the public firm; it is damned hard to figure out what's right to do. Information is costly. As university students, you already know that; just apply your awareness of that to voting.
Non-solutions Top; Next Down
If low voting turnout were an easy problem to solve, we'd have done that already. Let's consider how to solve it. We'll find some easy solutions, some hard ones, and a couple of things that probably admit of no solution at all.
First is how not to solve it. Don't bother to say "the government needs to do something." Actually it doesn't; government already has a lot to do and can get on with it whether T rises or not. Or "the politicians need to do something"; that's closer, but it depends on their motivation. Their main motivation is to compete for office and win a plurality of the vote. Subscribing nonvoters to become voters would be nice, but they're far too busy and too limited in resources to do that effectively. Besides, they'd only try this if it helps them directly. Raising turnout has to help them win. So don't expect a southern Republican hard-line conservative to urge the citizens of the local black Baptist church to register and to vote. Expect that only of the Democratic candidates! Likewise, local Democrats will not urge every pew of Lynnwood Baptist Church in this city to register and vote. You can guess why after reading text Patterson Chapter 6, pp 177-179 on ideology with cultural conservatism, religious fundamentalism, and Republican advocacy of government action to preserve traditional morals.
Here's a second non-solution: absentee voting. Absentee voting procedure has a powerful link to low voter turnout, not high. It burdens the typical citizen with a mysterious and time-consuming process in advance of the election. It can solve some individual's problem if he or she is away from home on election day and cares deeply about local issues and candidates. But nationwide, most people in the VEP are close to home, and more interested in large state and national office than local ones. No; absentee voting is a way to induce low T, not high. If you still want to adhere to absentee voting, then combine it with a procedure to allow advance voting by mail, as Texas and Oregon have done in recent years. That probably has alleviated any serious need for a separate absentee procedure. Absence of absentee voting is good news for advocates of higher T.
A third non-starter: for young adult citizens, there's a temptation to prescribe remedy by teaching them in high school that voting is important. I am personally thankful for not having to do that job and be accountable (under some new twist of No Child Left Behind testing protocols)! It's very tough to get high school students to care about anything in the political system when they sit daily in places that lack meaningful elections of their own. A promissory note that one day in the future, you'll care about voting? That's as far off for someone aged 17 as the eventual benefits of burning a credit card and putting the saving into a college fund for her future children; it can happen, but I wouldn't count on it too often.
And yet another non-solution: wow, let's all vote on the web! That presents problems of identifying participants and avoiding ballot-box stuffing that have not come close to solution. Maybe for your children, but not for right now. Those familiar with "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Public Opinion Polls" will recognize that we're not close to solving these problems in calendar 2008 or 2009.
And now the last and worst non-solution of all: scolding the 80,000,000 who could have voted in 2004 (or 2008) but did not. That's basically a waste of time. Shaming someone for a failure isn't very useful unless her chance to straighten out comes up soon. With national elections, that period is two years or four; far too long for shaming to work. Besides, the reasons for nonvoting are many, and prescribing this single remedy is akin to grabbing one hammer to do every job in constructing a house. Tailor the solution tools to the specific problems.
Solutions Top; Next Down
Now on feasible solutions. First, we know one way to dramatically improve registration rates, because nearly every European and other non-American democracy already does it. That's to create a national list of eligible citizens and automatically register them all, with address or addresses aligned to local voting sites. But alas, that collides with our election administration by 3142 locally based voting registrars and 50 distinct states--with election management residing with each state's Secretary of State office. You can see their operations via their national association website at nass.org - Elections & Voting. We in the U.S. had long relied upon antiquated and often anti-technological county registrars to handle this, and it has not worked very well in recent years except to exclude those who might not belong as voters in that county. We're also averse to going to any singular national registration list because that breaches privacy concerns, and if Social Security and Veterans' Administration listings be an indicator, a single large information loss to online scam artists would be sufficient to terminate the plan. We're much too distrustful of centralized power to permit a truly effective comprehensive citizen list. It's actually a good idea, as the 9-11 Commission recognized; but don't look for one before 2010 at the earliest.
Second, demand this of the counties: produce good lists of eligible citizens to send forth to the states, which then can convert it to electronic databases and download those back to the county registrars alongside updating protocols to span the changes between elections. That'll take time, cost money, and produce wrenching requirements that some old-fashioned registrars learn how to use computers. But it's overdue. Besides, there's already a Motor Voter program underway to boost registration by offering that service to persons who register automobiles. That's valuable because it "follows the mobile voter" to any new town and address; and the most mobile persons tend to be either young, or fairly poor, both categories where voter T is very low. We might add a young person's component to this, since low T is notoriously aligned with being aged 18 to 25. Citizens upon reaching age 18 could get a "you're registered" designation from the local registrar in conjunction with high school rites of passage such as graduation alongside car registrations. It might also reinforce the sense that citizenship is important to many young adults who are inclined to doubt that.
A third thing that can be done once modernized county handling of voter information is in place: go to election day registration in more states, including Missouri. The northern states of North Dakota, Minnesota, and Maine already do that or its equivalent (Demos - Election Day Registration). This action alone is worth an approximate 9 percentage point boost in turnout T using VAP; and change to VEP should not reduce this boost by much (Rosenstone and Hansen 2003).
To carry out both the second and third things, we need help from states. That has been forthcoming since passage of the important Help America Vote Act by the Congress in 2002. It requires states to create and maintain statewide electronic voter registration lists with referencing from both county registration rolls and federal Social Security records. But in 2008 this has created the opportunity for states to purge their election rolls in the name of preventing possible voter fraud, and some tried that with exceptional vigor (Urbina 2008, States’ Actions to Block Voters Appear Illegal). That means the emerging gap of VAP from VEP might be enlarged significantly. It promises lawsuits aplenty in 2009 once the 2008 dust cleared. Provisional voting is available for those not recognized on the statewide voter registration rolls, and every citizen should insist on doing so if the local voting site questions the citizen's right to vote there.
Few states in 2008 have gone to election-day registration, but many have gone instead to early voting via mail. That way the extended time gap between month-in-advance registration and actual voting is virtually erased. This will help, but evidence to date confirms that most early voters are party activists and avid candidate supporters who would certainly vote anyway. Therefore this remedy is convenient for voters, but not especially effective as a way to induce voting from those who aren't there. Once states do obtain more reliable statewide electronic voter registration lists (with or without illegal purges), it seems a natural remedy to then move to election day registration.
Fifth, and while we're on Election Day, we should ditch the blind adherence to tradition that has us voting on a Tuesday of a work week. What common sense does that make? Either make that Tuesday of November 2 through 8 a national holiday sans work and classes, like our Thanksgiving; or better yet, just do weekend voting like the rest of the civilized world does. I say it's all right to look at foreigners who have higher turnout than we, and borrow from their books. The American way is sometimes blind tradition with little else; and this is such a case.
Please note that up to now, my solve-it proposals address how to administer registration and elections. It hasn't addressed the citizens and the politicians and the parties. That part is a whole lot harder to solve.
Please do not invoke the claim that politicians "need to address the concerns of young citizens." Those who seek election need to woo voters, not nonvoters. So long as young adults vote at low rates, politicians will need other people more than the young. All political campaigns seek out voters-to-be above nonvoters. What is more, the highly polarized 2004 and current political climate is one that induced both major parties to emphasize mobilization (getting your natural support to show up) almost exclusively; but they have virtually given up on conversion (getting non-supporters or active enemies to become supporters). This party preference leaves young uncommitted persons on the sideline. Politicians won't need the young until after their low T problem is resolved. And besides, the national issue of low T does not cover young citizens only, but rather all citizens. Most adults aren't young; they are middle-aged or older. Our issue here is overall low T, not solely youthful low T.
But political parties and their slates of candidates do care about turnout. They had a recent success of no small dimension in this respect. That's the 2004 election, which compared to 2000 saw a positive jump of nearly 17,000,000 voters to more than 122,000,000 in all (Dave Leip's Atlas - 2000 Presidential General Election Results compared to 2004 Presidential General Election Results; MacDonald, 2004 General Election Voter Turnout compared to United States Elections Project 2000; Renka, The Election of 2004). Two crucial things were involved in this: intensive mobilization of likely supporters by both the Democrats and the Republicans, and a widened ideological gap between those with the President and those opposed. People either liked George W. Bush pretty well, or they were thoroughly alienated from him. He was "a divider, not a uniter" (Jacobson 2006). For that matter, his predecessor President Bill Clinton (1993-2001) had been a lightning rod on the emergent cultural divide of the parties in the 1990s--but apparently not in time to spur fully successful mobilization by both parties (Fiorina 2005). By 2004 the divide was there and was evident in the bitter tone of the campaign (Sabato 2006). Earlier evidence had shown that much decline in voter T since 1960 is laid at the parties' door for failing to mobilize citizens (Rosenstone and Hansen 2003). The two parties in the 2004 presidential election cycle got the message, went to work, and succeeded in getting almost 6 voters to the polls in 2004 for every 5 who attended the 2000 event.
Mobilization might also work well to boost midterm congressional election turnout. These elections always lose slightly over 1 voter in 4 of presidential-year voters. The VAP-based T since the 1980s has run between 35 and 38%. In midterm 2006, it rose to about 39.5% (Rhodes Cook 2006, Pew Research Center - Voter Turnout and Congressional Change). MacDonald in November 2006 posted a VAP estimate of 37.0%, a very modest increase if any over recent midterms. However, the national VEP estimate of total turnout was 41.3%, reflecting the large 2006 component of young adult resident aliens (MacDonald 2006; MacDonald 2007, Voter Turnout 2006 General). There are modest signs that mobilization in 2010 could go beyond that, as the 2008 presidential election saw T at a new record level of 131,300,000 (MacDonald 2009, Voter Turnout 2008 General). When the two parties do their jobs, voter T is boosted.
Parties trust and seek out citizen partisans with the correct party label. That leaves out the hefty proportion of Americans who are independent; but many of them lean to one party or the other. Rather like those not in church but inclined to be, they are ripe picking for mobilization campaigns. When parties are easily distinguished by issue platform and commonplace identity, the citizen's information cost is greatly reduced. Both those conditions held forth in 2004, and turnout went up a lot.
Mobilization apparently can work to boost turnout among young adults when coupled with efforts to curb their low voter registration rates. Those aged 18 to 29 have shown boosts in T during the 2000 to 2006 election cycles. Early analysis suggests that this is linked to improved registration rates in the 2000 election cycle (Marcelo 2007, Voter Registration Among Young People). Maybe the Motor Voter law of 1993 is finally having some real impact; and maybe it's because both parties now recognize the imperative to get their own likely co-partisan supporters to show up on Election Day.
No matter the age, longer term boosts in T depend heavily on fundamental attitudes toward politics and public life. The key factor here is that mental state called efficacy. Political efficacy is the belief that: 1) your civic voice is inherently important and worthy, and that 2) it will be heeded by those in authority (Rosenstone and Hansen 2003, 141-145; Abramson, Aldrich and Rohde 2006, 97-99). It has an internal component (your ability to understand politics) and an external one (responsiveness of the political world to you). This psychological attribute matters a lot in defining who votes. Efficacy in America is mediated by social class, which in turn is measured through income and education levels (along with occupational status). Efficacy belongs mainly to those with education and, a little less clearly, those with money and occupational status. The American poor are famously low in political efficacy, especially in recent decades with the sense that neither Republicans nor Democrats rely on poor and downtrodden people for election to office (Patterson 2008, 197-199 and Figure 7-3, p. 200). Low efficacy is not the same as anger or alienation from politics (alienation not being affiliated with low T), but its effect is to distance such persons from meaningful participation in civic affairs. That disengagement is visible during school years in empty PTA meetings at lower-income towns and neighborhoods. High civic efficacy persons are ones who believe it's a right and duty to vote--and to otherwise participate in civic business when the occasion calls.
I have no ready solution for those with low efficacy. I don't pretend to know how to fill PTA meetings in low-income neighborhoods. People near the bottom of the American economic ladder aren't going to miraculously rise to great success through sudden epiphanies about the power of collective action. Smaller victories can be had; sometimes in our history we've seen uprisings by truly downtrodden people led by creative political leaders; the southern black civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King is our most famous example. But mass movements are not likely to work completely to remedy low efficacy.
So that's it: make it easier for people to register,
and reduce their cost of voting by having the parties come to the citizens.
Seek to foster higher efficacy somehow, but don't hold your breath or bet the
farm on it. Will some folks completely resist all this and still not vote?
Yes, of course. There's only one remedy to get them out: issue
Italian or Australian-style fines for those who don't show at the designated
booth on Election Day. But that is plainly not the American way--although
I truly hope one enterprising state of our 50 will someday try this out as a
civic experiment. If they do, I plan to vote.
1 If you add the Alaskan boroughs and Louisiana parishes to the
3051 counties of
the other 48 states, the tally is 3141. Add to that the District of
Columbia, a large city not in a state but included in the Electoral College, and
the tally is 3142 locally based election administration units. On tally
source, see USA Census,
USA Counties; and
Changes to Counties and County Equivalents effective December 2005.
This number may vary slightly; for example, see
Counties in the United
States with a count of 3143.
To find specific counties, see National Association of Counties at NACo County Resource Center, and NACo Find a County.
2 Party can also "resolve the unresolved" for political leaders themselves. Once many years ago in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Republican Speaker of the House Thaddeus Stevens was confronted with deciding which of two competing partisans should be seated as a new Representative. That meant deciding who had actually won a murky southern election contest in which many an abuse apparently took place. Summoning his colleagues for information, he was told "They are both scoundrels, sir!" "Well, which one is the Republican scoundrel? Give me the Republican scoundrel!" thundered the Speaker (Barnett 1939, 190). And that solved the case on the spot.
For you, party is a shorthand way of figuring out which candidate stands for what, and better yet, which camp of fellow travelers he or she will sit down with. You have need of both these things to solve your own informational problem in reasonable time. If both be scoundrels, or saints for that matter, what of it? Vote for the one affiliated with your party. Or choose knowledgeably to stay home.
Abramson, Paul R., John H. Aldrich, and David W. Rohde. 2006. Change and Continuity in the 2004 Elections. Washington D.C.: CQ Press.
Barnett, Vincent M., Jr. 1939. Contested Congressional Elections in Recent Years. Political Science Quarterly, Vol. LIV, no. 2, pp. 187-215; p. 190f2 reference to Stevens.
Cook, Rhodes. 2006. Pew Research Center - Voter Turnout and Congressional Change. URL: pewresearch.org/pubs/83/voter-turnout-and-congressional-change.
Cook, Rhodes. 2006b. RhodesCook.com Web Site - Unusual Turnout Dynamic Keys Big Democratic Comeback. URL: rhodescook.com/.
Fiorina, Morris P., with Samuel J. Abrams and Jeremy C. Pope. 2005. Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America. New York: Pearson Education, Inc.
Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA). Federal Election Commission's HAVA URL: http://www.fec.gov/hava/hava.htm.
Jacobson, Gary C. 2006. A Divider, Not a Uniter: George W. Bush and the American People. New York: Pearson Longman.
Leip, Dave. Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, 2000 Presidential General Election Results compared to 2004 Presidential General Election Results.
Marcelo, Karlo Barrios. September 2007. Voter Registration Among Young People. URL: www.civicyouth.org/PopUps/FactSheets/FS07_Registration.pdf. Heading is URL: www.civicyouth.org/?p=233 under title CIRCLE - A nonpartisan research center studying youth civic engagement and civic education. » FEATURED Voter Registration Among Young People.
McDonald, Michael P. 2009. Voter Turnout, accessed at http://elections.gmu.edu/voter_turnout.htm; and Voter Turnout 2004 General compared to Voter Turnout 2000 General.
McDonald, Michael P. 2006. Rocking the House: Competition and Turnout in the 2006 Midterm Election. The Forum, Vol. 4, No. 3 (December 2006). URL: www.bepress.com/forum/vol4/iss3/art4/.
McDonald, Michael P. 2008. Voter Turnout. URL: elections.gmu.edu/voter_turnout.htm.
Patterson, Thomas E. 2008. The American Democracy, 8th ed. New York: McGraw Hill.
Renka, Russell D. 2004. The Election of 2004. URL: cstl-cla.semo.edu/renka/Renka_papers/election_of_2004.htm.
Rosenstone, Steven J., and John Mark Hansen. 2003. Mobilization, Participation, and Democracy in America. New York: Longman Classics.
Sabato, Larry J. 2006. Divided States of America: The Slash and Burn Politics of The 2004 Presidential Election. New York: Pearson Education, Inc.
Urbina, Ian. 2008. States’ Actions to Block Voters Appear Illegal. New York Times, October 9.
Copyright©2009, Russell D. Renka